Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
I am not a man blessed with many natural talents. I arrived where I am, wherever that may be, thanks to a fair amount of endurance and a high pain tolerance. Perhaps selfishly, I take corresponding solace in the notion that nothing worth having comes easily. But it does not change the reality that realizing my goals is often a painful process. One goal long held has been to raise a pup to be credible gun dog. Like a dream, it’s something of an ethereal notion, disconnected from the reality that, while I’ve always had dogs, I don’t know the first thing about training them.
In January, I introduced you to my Labrador retriever, Jed. He was then six weeks old; a nine-pound ball of teeth and black fur that shines like oil on water. Now ten months old, Jed spent the first seven either asleep on my feet or dragging throw pillows into our back yard to shake them to death when no one was looking. By July he was back where he came from, River Ridge Kennels, enrolled in four months of Basic Gundog training. In my mind, I was sending Jed to trainer Bill Mattes to get him ready for his first season in a duck blind. I’ve since come to realize I engaged Bill to train me for my first season as the owner of a duck dog. It is a far more challenging task, but one Bill encourages as part of the package.
A trainer needs time to bond with a dog, so for the first excruciating month I was prohibited from visiting Jed. But every Friday for the last three weeks, I’ve joined Bill, Jed, and a pack of other dogs, most of them becoming Senior and Master Hunters. Additionally, September is National Service Dog Month. So when not learning how to manage Jed in a blind, I’ve spent some time visiting Canines for Service, a charitable organization that provides military veterans with mental, emotional, and physical service dogs at no cost. Watching both training processes, I’ve realized how stunningly complex an undertaking it is to train a dog to meet their own capabilities, how deeply sensitive they are, and how many life lessons may be learned in their company.
Sensitivity and the willing sublimation of their own needs make dogs, particularly Labradors, perfect for both sporting and service roles. But that same sensitivity makes it easy to confuse Jed with my tentative approach. In my ignorance, I am either too forceful or not forceful enough. I give him voice commands my body language does not effectively reinforce or, worse yet, counteracts. He wants to please me, but his focus is on Bill (the only one of the three of us deservedly confident in his abilities, after two decades training gun dogs) and the tension throws a young dog into confusion. I’d be lying if I said I did not understand how he feels.
Training a dog, it appears to me, is about the effective application and elimination of pressure. Like all of us, Jed deserves a leader who makes expectations clear, who understands the rules under which he is expected to operate, and is consistent in their application. My failure to do any of that particularly well made clear the most important aspect when training dogs or humans: be patient enough to find a way to finish on a high note; to send everyone home with a win. To that end, after I made a mess of a series of long retrieves in and through water, Bill put a bumper in the water and had me send Jed from fifteen yards. It was a means of rehabilitating both of us with a guaranteed success. The next day, a message came from Bill, “Your boy had a good run today, he did well”.
Finish on a high note. It matters.
Russell Worth Parker
Editor at Large, Tom Beckbe